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Ashland wildfire safety recommendations constrained by tight budget

The Wildfire Safety Commission has put forth 13 recommendations to address wildfire vulnerability for consideration by Ashland City Council, which will come under the purview of the newly elected council following a transition period.

“Our commission recognizes that the city of Ashland is facing difficult financial decisions, between the income reductions of COVID-19 ... and other factors,” Commission Chair Stephen Gagne said during a council study session Nov. 2. “The threat of wildfire needs to be factored into those decisions.”

Gagne asked the council to consider the recommendations as a “non-optional insurance policy” to bolster physical and financial resilience against future wildfires. Costs associated with the recommendations would be tallied under the city’s essential services budget.

The Wildfire Safety Commission divided recommendations into five categories: fire-adapted communities program expansion activities; hazardous vegetation and fuels abatement in developed areas; emergency response and evacuation preparedness; forest resiliency and watershed fuels treatments programs; and fire prevention.

Within expansion of the fire-adapted communities program, the Wildfire Safety Commission recommended updating the Ashland Community Wildfire Preparedness Plan and filling a vacant communications staff position, which is already listed in the city’s budget plan.

Gagne said the preparedness plan should serve as a dynamic roadmap for inter-city agreements. As it stands, Ashland’s 16-year-old plan is out of touch with realities due to climate change, public perception about wildfire risk following the Almeda fire, and 12,000 acres of successful fuels treatment in the Ashland watershed, he said.

The commission established a hopeful completion date of March 2022 for an updated Community Wildfire Preparedness Plan, with a price tag of $40,000. The Wildfire Safety Commission also proposed a financial recalibration for the Ashland Forest Resiliency and Watershed Fuels Treatment programs to close a gap between a doubling in work quantity for staff with a lack of comparable funding.

“All of the combined things that we’re talking about in this document add up to about 1% of the city annual budget,” Gagne said. “On one level, that’s a huge ask. On another level, compared to the risk, maybe it’s not.”

The Wildfire Safety Commission proposed that City Council draft a formal request to the Jackson County Board of Commissioners to implement its own weed abatement ordinance as part of a strengthened regional approach to wildfire resilience.

Improving evacuation route safety and accessibility, hiring three additional seasonal firefighters and restricting street parking on red-flag warning days also made the list. Gagne noted a need to identify which streets in Ashland offer only one way in and one way out, and track where bottlenecks can occur on roadways.

Referencing a recommendation to hire a wildfire mitigation program assistant, Councilor Rich Rosenthal raised concerns that any discussion of adding full-time staff for the next biennium is a tough ask in the city’s budget situation. According to council documents, the Wildfire Safety Commission proposed the staff position as a way of facilitating and coordinating engagement with businesses and the public prior to, during and following a wildfire.

Councilor Stefani Seffinger pushed for further prioritization of recommendations to take into the next budget process — highlighting those that would have the most clear and immediate effect on wildfire mitigation.

Within staff discussion of the recommendations, City Administrator Adam Hanks said a common theme emerged: What needs to be done is well founded, but how to accomplish desired outcomes is more complicated, and may necessitate contracted staff, interdepartmental cooperation and more.

Wildfire Division Chief Chris Chambers said a $3 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s hazard mitigation grant program — scheduled to come online in early 2021 — will cover substantial work over three years, but not all necessary home safety analyses and vegetation management actions.

The grant is referenced in the Wildfire Safety Commission’s hazardous vegetation and fuels abatement category as something to consider for properties exempt from FEMA funds, which may benefit from a separate wildfire safety fund with cost-sharing incentives for fuels reduction.

“There’s a lot of people out there that need some help and assistance but aren’t going to get it from this grant,” Chambers said. “You don’t find that kind of mitigation money anywhere else, so it’s really our best shot of grant money that we’re going to get, and yet we’re not addressing thousands and thousands of homes in the city with any financial help.”

The city must also consider whether appropriate frequency of vegetation control is being met, Hanks added. The Almeda fire ignition site had been mowed at least three times in the season before the fire sparked, whereas other areas were addressed only once or aren’t featured on existing fuels reduction maps, he said.

Tonya Graham, council liaison to the Wildfire Safety Commission, said with a $3 million grant on its way and a backlog of hazardous fuels to be addressed, the commission recognizes a need to get city representatives in the field to help landowners make their properties safer. The idea is to hit the problems hard at once and maintain a higher level of fire safety over time, she said.

Recommendation No. 4, addressing an accumulation of hazardous vegetation in developed areas over five years to create greater defensible acreage, runs an estimated $200,000 per year.

The Nov. 2 council study session presented an opportunity to incorporate feedback from the existing council, while the Wildfire Safety Commission recommendation presentation serves as a starting point for the next council to consider.

Contact Ashland Tidings reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497 and follow her on Twitter @AllayanaD.

Correction: This article has been updated to fix the age of Ashland's current Ashland Community Wildfire Preparedness Plan.